Institute fosters partnerships to help region
From the June 19, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin
The many challenges facing the tri-state region — meeting the growing demands for mass transit, providing schools that offer what students need in a demanding global economy, balancing the pressure for growth with a concern for the environment — can seem daunting. Policy-makers, legislators and community leaders increasingly have been turning for help to an institute in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The Policy Research Institute for the Region encourages faculty, students and staff to foster partnerships designed to develop creative solutions to the massive problems confronting New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania today. Much of its work focuses on reinvigorating the area’s most challenged communities — cities including Trenton and Newark, as well as struggling neighborhoods in New York and Philadelphia.
The institute has initiated research from Princeton faculty and others on diverse issues and then convened conferences to discuss these important topics. Issues recently explored have included: immigrant communities and policing in the wake of 9/11; global warming and New Jersey; retaining and attracting good teachers; migrant workers; stem cell research; New Jersey voter education; and the future of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Some 1,200 scholars, policy-makers and other community organizers attended the institute’s gatherings in the last year, according to director Anthony Shorris. Among the speakers have been the governor of New Jersey, the chair and executive director of the Port Authority, the New York City commissioner of immigrant affairs and top law enforcement officials from various states.
Shorris is a Woodrow Wilson School alumnus with more than 25 years of high-profile experience in public and nonprofit management throughout the region, including stints in New York City government and with its board of education as well a top-level position at the Port Authority. “I know from the public sector and nonprofit worlds that there’s a hunger for access to smart people and new ideas,” he said. “So we wanted to create something to connect Princeton and the human capital of a great university to the policy-makers of the region. We are following a bunch of different tacks for that.”
The institute each year sponsors between six and eight conferences and a dozen lunch colloquia. It annually conceives and manages 12 to 15 research projects and publishes six to 10 books. Support is also offered for doctoral research and undergraduate fellowships. In addition, the institute oversees an expanding Web site that boasts special databases and other in-depth publications for researchers interested in amassing information on the region.
Being a good citizen
The institute was established in 2003, in part with a substantial gift from John Dyson, an alumnus and former New York City deputy mayor who now serves as chairman of Millbrook Capital Management. The University wanted to offer a new learning experience to its students as well as help communities in the areas surrounding Princeton.
“The Woodrow Wilson School routinely sends its graduate students halfway around the world to study subjects like poverty reduction, primary education, affordable and available health care, urban policy and environmental policy,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the school. “Yet we all too often ignore those very same issues closer to home. Engaging with government and nongovernmental organizations in the region affords our students more hands-on experience and learning. It is also part of being a good citizen as an institution. We have a world-class faculty and student body; if we can help address the problems in our region, we should.”
The institute’s work has drawn praise from government and other community leaders. Richard Leone, who heads New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s new Commission on Government Efficiency and Reform, is planning to tap the institute’s resources. “Among the topics on our list are higher education reform, strengthening management systems and financial controls, health care cost containment and departmental reorganization,” said Leone. “The assistance of the institute will enhance our capacity to do issue research and to develop recommendations for the governor. We are operating on a very tight budget, and without this help, this work we need could not be done.”
Carmen Twillie Ambar, dean of Rutgers University’s Douglass College, called the institute a catalyst for potentially groundbreaking work. “This region, maybe more so than any other region of the United States, is really a bellwether region for so many issues, including immigration, national security, environmental issues,” Ambar noted. “What we decide in this region is predictive of what will be — or should or shouldn’t be — happening across the country. Given the importance of our region to this nation and the world, it is critical that the best public policy school in the country have a mechanism to bring the best minds to the table on these important issues. The Policy Research Institute formalizes the opportunity for the Woodrow Wilson School to provide creative solutions to the region, the nation and the world’s problems.”
Ambar, a Wilson School alumna, said that the institute has helped her immensely in her work as head of one of the largest women’s colleges in the country. “The stellar programming helped me to broaden my view of the issues and also connected me with individuals with similar issues, permitting me an opportunity to discuss strategies and best practices,” she said.
Princeton students are also among those to benefit. A handful of graduate fellows are receiving grants ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 to research topics such as education reform, urban renewal or state-funded stem cell projects.
An undergraduate fellowship program began last year and thus far has supported a dozen students, occasionally with grant money, but usually by encouraging the students to make contacts and work on projects related to the region.
“These 12 fellows have become our best resource for reaching out to the student body,” said Andy Rachlin, a program associate with the institute. The undergraduates organized a three-part series on underprivileged youth in the region, and brought together education experts, major figures in the anti-gang movement and representatives of community arts initiatives to discuss their work. These academic discussions were coupled with relevant, entertaining events like film screenings and a concert by a group that uses the arts to build social capital in poor communities, Rachlin said.
Sarah Breslow, a sophomore who is interested in regional politics, said her fellowship was useful in connecting her to summer internships. Organizing speakers’ events at the institute helped her “keep the importance of the region in mind,” she said.
“Princeton faculty and students often do research on national politics but rarely focus on the local issues, which can have more of an effect on their daily lives,” said Breslow.
Japanese native Hiroyuki Tanaka, a senior in the Woodrow Wilson School who is interested in immigrants’ rights and criminal justice issues, said he was impressed by the conference on post-9/11 policing in the region’s growing ethnic communities.
“I was able to extract valuable lessons from the policy conference and apply it to formulate interesting questions in my own research on immigrants in Britain and France,” he said. “I believe that the local approach to resolving conflicts and misunderstanding between immigrant communities and government authorities is much more effective than taking a national approach. Learning about innovative practices in the region, such as outreach and interfaith programs in local churches, has allowed me to broaden my view of approaches challenging policy questions.”
Tanaka added that he planned to take home some of the lessons he has learned from the institute. “When I return to Japan someday, I hope to push for more local and regional level approaches to policy issues such as the lack of housing, improving the education system and improving immigrant-police relations.”
Other student-oriented events sponsored this spring by the institute were creative writing and visual arts contests, which aimed to get students in these disciplines to think about the region. The winner of the creative writing contest was graduate student Claire Fallender, who wrote an endearing story about a child of divorce whose dropoff point between parents from Philadelphia and Manhattan is an exit off the Jersey Turnpike. “The Grover Cleveland rest stop was where my life split,” says the boy in Fallender’s story.
“I was awfully pleased with the writing contest,” said Shorris. “I just thought it offered tremendous promise in connecting students who are working in wholly different fields.”
But perhaps the backbone of the institute is its Web site.
Working in partnership with the Pew Center for the States, the institute’s home page includes a selection of the region’s top news stories from Stateline.org. The institute also publishes its own series of issue-specific regional updates called “Policy Matters,” which address topics of interest to the region such as rising mass transit fares, financing sports arenas, minimum wage policies and the cost of higher education. All of the institute’s research papers and information about past and upcoming conferences and colloquia can also be obtained online.
A unique feature of the Web site is its databases, which include raw census information for the three states and a new mapping tool to analyze economic trends. The latter project was developed by alumnus Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School and one of the world’s leading scholars on the competitiveness of companies, countries and regions, who recently made a $250,000 gift to the Policy Research Institute.
“The Regional Cluster Mapping Project provides a body of data allowing a detailed examination of the economic geography of Princeton’s surrounding region, which includes the New York metropolitan area,” said Porter, who also sparked Princeton’s involvement in Opportunity Newark, a market-driven economic development initiative that aims to revitalize Newark’s inner city. “The data, customized from a larger database I created at Harvard Business School, allows stakeholders to assess the competitiveness of the region in each industry and examine economic trends over the last decade. These data are vital for measuring the economic progress of the region and designing economic development initiatives, and should serve as a resource for policy-makers.”
The goal of these different online resources is to help foster more partnerships that benefit the region, Shorris said. “The point of the Web site is partly to be a portal and to provide access and links to others, but the real point is to assimilate ideas and thinking. I’m really hoping that when an undergraduate is thinking about a paper topic or a graduate student is looking for a research opportunity, they will browse our site and it might encourage them to say, ‘That’s the kind of thing I want to look into.’”